GRANITEVILLE - Nobody who knew Melissa Dingess really believed she would leave home without a word or a wave goodbye.
Now they know that for 15 months she was probably no more than 10 miles away in the woods off Interstate 20, a body waiting to be found.
Aiken County Coroner Sue Townsend said Saturday she hasn't positively identified the skeleton found there Friday as the remains of Mrs. Dingess, 17, and still wants dental records or DNA for confirmation. But there was enough evidence for authorities to ask a magistrate to list Mrs. Dingess' name on a murder warrant against Reinaldo J. Rivera, 37.
In the Graniteville trailer park where the young woman lived, neighbors said she had been stalked - a detail investigators have shared with relatives.
Lynn Heath wept when she saw her friend's picture in a newspaper on the rack placed just a day before outside the Graniteville One-Stop - the same cafe where Mrs. Dingess was last seen before she disappeared in July 1999.
Mrs. Heath and Mrs. Dingess were neighbors in the trailer park behind the cafe. Mrs. Dingess' husband, Michael, lived there a few months alone after his wife disappeared, then left. Now the mobile home is gone, leaving a bare patch of earth.
"That morning she was gone, she did like she always did and waved at me ..." Mrs. Heath said. "She was always happy, always laughing.
"That morning she went to the pay phone to call her daddy, and she stopped by the cash register to tell me she'd come back and sit with me in the cafe for a while. She just had to go home and get her purse."
Home was just a few steps away - steps that a teen-ager who liked to talk on the phone had taken often. There was no telephone in the Dingess trailer or in many of the others clustered around it.
That day, Mrs. Dingess never came back.
What did come back Saturday were memories. The young bride, married the previous Christmas Eve, had kept a single rose her husband gave her.
"She really did love him," Mrs. Heath said. "It tickled her to death that her honey gave her a rose for no reason except that he loved her. She always kept it, even after it died."
Garrett McKie and Jinia Schad, who lived on the other side of Dingess trailer, did their share of porch-sitting with Mrs. Dingess, too.
She was fun-loving and full of life, they said.
Now neighbors say someone else noticed the perky teen-ager - and stalked her.
"I didn't think about it until after she was gone," Mrs. Heath said, "but there was man hanging around for several days, a Mexican, and he was interested in Melissa. He asked my daughter how many people lived in the trailer next door, and she told him."
She thought the same man was lurking in bushes between the trailers and the Graniteville cafe a day or two after the woman disappeared.
"I screamed and ran back home and started beating on the door," Mrs. Heath said.
Days, weeks and months went by - hard times for family and friends who felt certain something was badly wrong.
Kim McFaron knew it in her soul. She was Mrs. Dingess' best friend, although four years older. And because her friend, a dropout, would never have a chance to attend a high school prom, Ms. McFaron took her to her own at Midland Valley High School in 1996.
The 14-year-old wore a teal prom dress. The two girls had their pictures made at the dance and went out to eat.
Ms. McFaron wrote on the snapshots, "Best friends forever."
Ms. McFaron said she knew that Mrs. Dingess had not run away, although some people in Graniteville thought maybe she had.
"I knew she wouldn't go without calling her mama. And she would have called me," she said.
Ms. McFaron also knew that Mrs. Dingess - for all her party-loving ways - was no fragile girl.
"She had three brothers, and she could pretty much take care of herself. Something happened," she said. "Something had to have happened.
Mr. Dingess did not want to talk about authorities' belief that his wife's body had been found. Neither did Mildred and Jackie Spicer, her parents.
At the cafe Saturday morning, the newspaper rack emptied quickly, and people talked about little but the young woman over breakfast, waitress Darlene Wilson said.
Many knew and remembered Mrs. Dingess.
And a few miles away at the Twin Lakes country store, owned by Ms. McFaron's family, a missing-persons poster with Mrs. Dingess' picture on it was quietly taken out of the window.
She isn't missing anymore.
Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.
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